Latin American Movies About History

Saturday, April 23 by Marina Szaven

Let the best Latin American movies about history will school you on the many stories, cultures and conflicts of South America. From nearby Mexico, to the southernmost tip of Argentina, from Spanish conquistadors, to native Indians, there’s much to learn about the long ago and recent past South of the Border.

  1. “Apocalypto” (2006) Mel Gibson may never win the Miss Congeniality award, but he made the rare directorial choice to depict the Mayan civilization of Yucatan, Mexico with historical accuracy and in its own language. The story involves a young Mesoamerican, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), evading threat of human sacrifice and attempting to save his family.
  2. “Aguirre: The Wrath of God” (1972) In mid-16th century Peru, after the fall of the Incan Empire, a wealth-obsessed Spaniard ruthlessly leads a group of native Indians in search of silver and gold in this disturbing drama by Werner Herzog. Klaus Kinski, as Don Aguirres, masterfully captures the corruption and insanity of power in a scene-chewing tour-de-force that remains one of the best films to take place in Latin America.
  3. “The Mission” (1986) Hundreds of years later, it is the Jesuit priests and slave hunters who are trying to conquer the continent. Robert DeNiro and Jeremy Irons should be reason enough to catch this well-played 18th century drama, but also credit director Roland Joffé for capturing the political and religious hypocrisies of the time.
  4. “The Alamo” (2004) Less prone to stereotypes than the John Wayne (1960) version, this retelling of the Texas-Mexico conflict, by director John Lee Hancock, manages to give equal humanity to both sides of the border. With Dennis Quaid as Sam Houston, and Billy Bob Thornton as an unexpected Davy Crocket, this nation-defining conflict gets a much-needed update from the movies.
  5. “Viva Zapata” (1952) Don’t be put off by Marlon Brando’s mustache or the black & white film stock, this cinematic portrait of Emiliano Zapata remains one of the best movies on Latin American history. With a stellar script by Nobel Prize winner John Steinbeck and an Oscar-winning performance by Anthony Quinn as Zapata’s troubled and troublesome brother, director Elia Kazan brings the Mexican Revolution to cinematic life.
  6. "Frida" (2002) After the revolution, Mexican society had a renaissance in painting, politics and appreciation for Amerindian culture. Director Julie Taymor’s visually stunning biography of artist Frida Kahlo renders the people, places and conflicts with finesse, and faithfulness to the historical time. Salma Hayek, as Kahlo, leads an exceptional cast, including Alfred Molina as muralist Diego Rivera, and Geoffrey Rush as revolutionary Leon Trotsky.
  7. “Under the Volcano” (1984) The sad deterioration of an alcoholic British diplomat, Geoffrey Firmin (played with decaying charm by Albert Finney), provides a wonderful metaphor for the waning European influence in Latin America. Director John Huston brings a deft touch and thoroughly authentic detail to a more personal crisis just before the outbreak of World War II.
  8. “Memories of Underdevelopment” (1968) Set in the very beginning of Castro’s rule, this quiet drama follows the wanderings of a bourgeoisie writer, Sergio (Sergio Carrieri) who opts to stay in Cuba, while others flee to Miami under threat of the Bay of Pigs. Director Tomás Gutiérrez Alea captures that rare moment between two histories (one colonial, one communist) of our island neighbor.
  9. Missing” (1982) During the 1970s, the South American continent experienced political upheaval as military coups, US influence and economic strife caused uprisings, corruption and conflicts. Costa-Gravas directs this taut thriller, with Sissy Spacek and Jack Lemmon, as the wife and father of an imprisoned American writer in Chile, in one of the best film portraits of Latin American politics.
  10. “South of the Border” (2009) This wide-reaching documentary covers the current political state of South America, from Venezuela and Bolivia, to Brazil and Cuba, providing the best view of Latin America available today. From the streets to the presidents, director Oliver Stone provides a fresh view of the changes and possibilities of the region.

-Marina Chavez

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